Exploring potential in potatoes

Tobacco, a much-touted income-generating crop is facing challenges, Vincent Khonje writes.

Tobacco, a much-touted income-generating crop is facing challenges.

Currently, a lot of issues surround the once cherished industry which at some point fetched a lot of dollars on the market.

Today most farmers are jumping ship opting for other crops hoping to earn more money.

If one is to ask most farmers who have been in tobacco farming they will definitely say the tobacco industry is no longer attractive.

A very involving task it is to grow tobacco, but earning peanuts on the market. This fact has forced farmers out of the industry.

Chimwemwe Mhango from Matemanga village in Traditional Authority (TA) Mnyaluwanga in Nkhatabay feels with tobacco he had enough.

Mhango says he has been a tobacco farmer from 2011 and has been planting different types of tobacco leaf.

He can only describe the period from 2011 to 2015 he had been in tobacco as upsetting.

“I have been with different tenants from 2011 but I never made any profits. I only made money that ended up paying the tenants,” says Mhango.

It is not a different story for Jack Mpani, 35, from Chisazima, TA Kaomba in Kasungu who has also ditched tobacco.

Before 2019, he used to grow different kinds of crops including tobacco.

Mpani grew tobacco on contract farming with tobacco buying companies but he says no returns were there.

“With tobacco on contract farming, the money earned ended up in repaying the farm inputs loans,” says Mpani.

In the wake of tobacco industry downturn, farmers needed to diversify and look for alternative crops that can bring about at least some fortunes.  

For Mhango, he has found a substitute for tobacco in Irish potato farming which he is cherishing.

He started with ordinary varieties of Irish potatoes in 2015 when he quit growing tobacco but later in 2019 switched to improved varieties of Irish potato.

After starting growing improved varieties of Irish potato he has become one of the three farmers in Chikwina Extension Planning Area (EPA) multiplying improved Irish potato seed for the benefit of other farmers.

“My first time to grow improved varieties of Irish potato the yield was so impressive that I made profits right away,” says Mhango.

Mhango who says during the time he was into tobacco farming he never imagined of making over K800, 000, is now able to send children to school and has built a house.

For Mpani, after making losses with tobacco, he found affection in orange-fleshed sweet potatoes farming which are also improved varieties.

He multiplies the vines so that other farmers can benefit and also sells the roots for consumption.

After changing crops, Mpani no longer admires tobacco farming and believes it is orange-fleshed sweet potatoes that can help him realize more.

The switch from tobacco to potatoes has brought in many benefits to Mpani, unlike when he was growing tobacco.

“My life has transformed and I have bought a car, a cart, two donkeys and I now own a shop too. On top of that I am able to feed my family and send my children to school,” says Mpani

Most of potato farmers in the country have now adopted improved Irish potato and orange fleshed sweet potato varieties thanks to International Potato Center (CIP), a research for development organisation focusing on potato, sweet potato and Andean roots and tubers.

Through several projects the organisation has partnered several stakeholders to delivering sustainable solutions to issues of hunger and climate change among others.

Improved orange fleshed sweet potato and Irish potato varieties have been introduced and released to farmers like Mhango and Mpani.

In a project called Root and Tuber Crops for Agricultural Transformation in Malawi (RTC-Action) CIP is working with Department of Agricultural Research Services (DARS)contributions to a diversified, productive, and resilient agricultural sector that provides food security, nutrition, incomes, and employment in Malawi.

There are several trials of improved potato and fleshed sweet potatoes being done by DARS and some have already been released.

The advantages of these varieties include increased productivity, climate resilience, increased revenues, and nutrition outcomes of root and tuber crops value chains.

Kennedy Masamba, DARS roots and tubers research scientist says the department is doing research on the roots and tuber crops to improve the quality and nutritional aspect.

The orange fleshed potatoes are high in beta-carotene, the Vitamin A precursor and also bio-fortified with zinc and iron while Irish potatoes have benefits like controlling blood sugar levels, contain antioxidants and apart from packed with more nutrients like potassium, Vitamins C and B6, carbohydrates and proteins they also improve digestion.

Vitamin A is important to build bodies and protects from illnesses.

“We are encouraging research of these important crops because that is where we are going to increase production and also the quality. We are also talking of the nutritional value people will get after consuming the crops,” says Masamba.

The fact that sweet potatoes and Irish potatoes have already been embraced in the country it will only be fair that more improved varieties are pushed to farmers.

The benefits are enormous in terms of high yield and nutritional value, and farmers that have taken potato farming are benefitting a lot.

Under another project called Transforming Agriculture in Malawi (KULIMA), CIP is supporting farmers to learn more technologies.

Under this project the farmers learn several technologies on potatoes and then take the same to fellow farmers in their communities.

CIP’s research technician David Nthobwa said technologies that are there most of the times do not reach to the smallholder farmers and want the technologies to trickle down.

“We are giving technical advice to the farmers and also extension services providers. We have new varieties that have been released and we want all these varieties to be available to farmers across the country,” said Nthobwa.

The same efforts are also being promoted by at Kasungu’s Lisasadzi Residential Training Centre (RTC) where there are a lot of potato technologies being tried.

All this is to make sure potato farmers have the best varieties that will give high yield and high nutritional value.

Fyson Chitowe, principal of the RTC says the centre under KULIMA project trains master trainers who are transferring the potato technologies to farmers.

The reason is to have more farmers who are into this kind of farming.

“There are technologies that are being tried here and are also replicated by the farmers in the outreach fields called Farmers Field School (FFS),” says Chitowe.

Nutritionally, one medium size orange-fleshed sweet potato each day is enough to provide vitamin A needed by an adult and a meal of Irish potatoes every day will help curb inflammation in the body, boost immunity and healthy blood circulation.

As the country promotes farming practices that will address hunger and also help households acquire required nutrients, orange-fleshed sweet potatoes and Irish potatoes have the potential to achieve all this.